Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Sharp End

A year or so ago.

A man in his sixties is before the court. He has pleaded not guilty a few times but has finally decided to listen to his solicitor and accept that he doesn't have a ghost of a defence to the allegation of driving without insurance. The offence is technical, but the insurance laws are very rigid.

His representative is not, to be frank, very good. We have to prompt him in the right direction and he finally puts forward the arguments that we have already taken on board.

No Insurance is a Strict Liability offence, and there are few defences, other than having had a proper policy. We decide that we are hearing an honest man's account that he was, while in breach of the law, genuinely misled by brokers he relied on about whether or not he was insured.

We decided on an Absolute Discharge, no costs, and we found special reasons not to endorse his licence or disqualify him.

I told him our decision, and it took a moment for him to work out what I was saying, even though I did my best to be clear.

He broke down and sobbed, unable to speak, and I said, as gently as I could, "That's the end of it, you may go".

That decent honest man, with no previous convictions, had probably gone through purgatory pending the only court case he had ever been involved in. We did what we thought was right. I could not put out of my mind the swaggering contempt that some young offenders show to the court when charged with nasty, serious offences.

That's the kind of thing that makes the whole job worth doing.

Monday, January 25, 2010

More About Knives

I have been given a copy of a London Local Sentencing Guideline on the 'Sale of knives and certain articles with a blade or point to persons under the age of 18 years, contrary to S141a Criminal Justice Act 1988'.
The starting points run from a low level community order for 'failing to check identity or shop policy not followed', up to 12 weeks' custody for 'deliberate sale in dangerous circumstances, e.g. heightened tension in area of shop due to gang rivalry'. Overall the range is from a low level community order to 26 weeks custody. The usual reduction for a guilty plea applies.
This all puzzles me a bit. For one thing it is not an SGC guideline, and I have no idea of its provenance, although I am sure my Clerk approves of it. The other thing is that this deals with the sale of knives to under-18s with harsh punishments for shopkeepers who do so, but just how common is this? At a guess, I have at least 30 potentially lethal knives in the kitchen, not to mention the ones in the garage and in the shed. How likely is it that a teenager will pop along to the ironmongers or to the kitchen shop to get himself tooled up, when his and every other home in the country will have more than enough knives lying about to do the job?
I have a hunch that this will prove to be just another gesture, with few if any cases coming before the courts.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Just In Case You Wondered Who Was In Charge

The decision was announced by Johnson in the News of the World, which has campaigned for what it calls "Sarah's law" – the publication of the names and addresses of convicted sex offenders.

The tabloid described the move as "the biggest breakthrough since the campaign was launched after the abduction and murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in July 2000".

Professionals in the police and probation services seem to be in agreement that this is an unhelpful and potentially counter-productive move. But hey, what's that compared to the power of the Murdoch press?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Sign Of The Times

One of the less well-known functions of the Magistrates' Court is its family jurisdiction. JPs who have passed selection and received specialised training sit on cases involving the care and custody of children, financial matters and much more. There are arrangements for cases to be transferred between the County Court and the Family Proceedings Court as they evolve.
The tragedy of Baby Peter, and a number of other cases involving vulnerable children, have led to a large increase in the volume of work coming before the courts, so I was not surprised to see a notice in our retiring room asking for volunteers to apply to the Family Panel to try to clear the growing backlog of cases, which now runs to a year or more for some. 'Lack of judicial resources' is given as one of the main causes of delay. I am sure that there will be a good response; there aren't many more important things a magistrate can do.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Oh Dear, Mr. Toad

This report is bad news for the many thousands of drivers who view speed cameras as a totalitarian infringement on their liberty.

The premiums for my two cars (1600 cc hatchback and 2000 cc supercharged German saloon) add up to less than £350.

I'm not being smug, just pointing out the benefits of a low risk postcode, being the right age, and avoiding crashes.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Er - Run That By Me Again, Please

It has been suggested on a website frequented by magistrates that unpaid work orders (a commonly-used sentencing disposal) might usefully include snow clearance.

Excuse me?

Do these people have any idea of the time that it takes the lumbering bureaucracy of probation to take even the simplest idea on board? Risk assessments, consultation, the whole panoply of govenment departments mean that the whole idea could not be brought to fulfilment in much under a year.

For the record, chaps, snow has a habit of melting after a few days, or even, where I live, a week or two. Hardly time to compose an email, is it?


The very existence of the National Association of Muslim Police (NAMP) should be unnecessary. The idea of Catholic Cops, Hindu Old Bill, Presbyterian Pigs, and Reformed-Church Rozzers is unacceptable, given that all officers must swear alleigance to the same Queen, and are allowed the oath of their choice.
So far, so bad, but what would we think about a Muslim Magistrates' Association, or the Jewish Justices?

I would fight anything like that in the last ditch, because the judiciary must remain impartial and non-sectarian. So, to return to my theme, should the police.

Oops! (Part of a Series)

Those responsible for printing the Norfolk Magistrates' Yearbook seem to have slipped up in their choice of printer. Once the initial schadenfreude has passed, this is not, in reality, particularly serious. I have never heard of a case of any magistrate being harassed or attacked (other than by the sensationalist Press, of course) for something he has done in court.
The Yearbook is useful for contacting colleagues for all those little queries that come up, although I prefer email for convenience. Ours included everyone's date of appointment, so you could watch your name climbing painfully up the seniority list. We lost the books a couple of years ago to save money; diaries were done away with last year. Absurdly, I had an email from the Bench Secretary the other day urging me to pick up amended details of a colleague next time I was at court, as she has been ordered not to email this information for 'security' reasons. In all my time on the Bench I have been listed in the phone book, and I have never had an improper call from anyone (apart from one from a barrister that I won't talk about).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New Blog

This new blog looks like the author knows his stuff.

Heavy-Handed As Usual

The Government has decided to do something about the alarming rise in binge-drinking. Okay, binge drinking is a Bad Thing, both for individuals and for society, but the proposed measures,typically for this government, are unnecessarily draconian.
Pubs clubs and off-licenses are, guess what, licensed by their local authority (that's a job magistrates did until a few years ago, but that's another issue) so they have a lot to lose by breaking the terms of their licenses. The licensing authority has considerable powers to ensure proper management of its licensees, those powers being subject to appeal to a magistrates' court
So what is this flat-footed nonsense about huge fines and, for heaven's sake, six-month jail terms other than a knee-jerk reaction by ministers with one eye on the impending election?
I cannot imagine any scenario where an irresponsible licensee could not be brought to heel by the threatened or actual removal of his license, with appropriate fines for deliberate breaches thus losing his livelihood - so what's the point of threatening prison? Prison has its part to play in our justice system, but not for this, on any analysis.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I have just noticed, as I flick through the depressing list of tonight's TV programmes, that an old John Wayne movie called 'Brannigan' is on. I saw this way back when, and one line has stuck in my memory.
Wayne's character, Brannigan, calls his boss back home in the USA to confess that he has lost the suspect. As I recall, the response is: "How do you lose a guy in a little country like that?"

Friday, January 15, 2010

Nothing Is As It Seems

This story in The Guardian shows how journalists anxious to run a good story and people with their own agenda can plant blatant untruths in the public's consciousness. I smelt a rat when I first read that Ms.Klass had been advised against brandishing a knife in her own home, since the words "in a public place" are usually to be found in any weapon-related charges. Unfortunately this story, that appears to have been a cunning bit of PR, will have embedded itself in the popular culture, just like the don't-shovel-snow business that we talked about a few posts ago. The fact is that you have nothing to fear if you tackle an intruder in your own home, provided that you don't go wildly over the top, just as you have nothing to fear if you make an honest attempt to clear up snow. As Jon commented yesterday:-
There is no reported case in which a householder has been held liable in the circumstances described.
Just going back to Ms. Klass, wouldn't any jury (even if it got that far) find that it would be perfectly understandable for a lone woman to pick up a knife if faced by a couple of burly young men?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Balancing Act

Judge David Fletcher, who resides at the North Liverpool 'Community Justice Centre' got a gong in the New Year Honours. He is an unusual judicial creature, who morphs at will from a District Judge to a Circuit Judge. I suspect that one of his greatest achievements is to be a 'community' judge in an area that includes the Liverpool and Everton grounds. I heard him speak once, and he said that he receives frequent invitations to sit in the Directors' Box at both grounds, and sometimes accepts, but has to be, shall we say, diplomatic as to his preferences.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bad Things Happen

I know next to nothing about civil law, but it is my understanding (and certainly that of very many people) that it is safer from a legal point of view not to make any attempt to clear snow and ice, because if you do it less than perfectly you may be liable for injuries to others, whereas leaving your path or car park or whatever covered in untouched snow and ice leaves you bulletproof. This has to be bad law; the sum total of accidents and injuries will be higher with snow left uncleared than if efforts are made to have a go at it, even imperfect ones.
When I am elected as an MP by acclamation my first Bill will be the Bad Things Happen Even To Nice People Bill, short title "Shit Happens - Live With It".
Don't hold your breath.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

A True Hero

The word hero has been debased by over-use.

This man was a true hero. He saw a crime, and went after the criminals. He has paid the ultimate price, for nothing more than being a decent and honourable citizen.
I feel humbled by his bravery; I have never done anything in my life that comes close to equalling Mr. Singh's courage.

One For The Road

This chap has managed to set a new record for drink-driving. It remains to be seen what sentence he will get, but I would be surprised if he doesn't get an immediate prison sentence and a ban of at least four or five years. As a High Risk Offender the DVLA will not automatically issue him with a licence at the end of his ban, but will require medical evidence that his abuse of alcohol has stopped. There are quite a few people who will never be issued with a licence; this has nothing to do with the courts but is an administrative decision by DVLA.
The highest reading that I have ever seen was 171, a long time ago. A young woman of about 20 was seen at 9 am having burst two tyres by hitting the kerb. She was struggling to get out the spare wheel, oblivious to the fact that she only had one of them, and a member of the public called police. We were told by her solicitor that she was from a good family and was suffering from some mental health problems; she was not usually a drinker, but she had been drinking vodka in her room for about ten hours. The reading was not helped by her being of slight build and female, both factors that make her more susceptible to alcohol than a 16-stone man. So we put the case off for medical and psychiatric reports and imposed an interim ban. I didn't sit on the sentencing hearing, but the reports were thorough and helpful and my colleagues imposed a probation order with conditions that she should receive treatment and remain under supervision for two years.
At the opposite end of the scale was the man whose car simply stopped in the filter lane of some traffic lights because he was too drunk to drive any further. When police arrived they opened the driver's door, and he fell into the road. There was an open bottle of vodka in the car, half-empty. At the police station he couldn't be breath-tested because of his state of intoxication, so a doctor certified him unfit.
It then turned out that this was his seventh drink-drive, that he was on a 10 year ban, and had been released fom prison for the same offence about six weeks ago. The maximum that we could impose for Drive Disqual. and drink-drive was six months, so that's what we gave him, along with a fresh 10 year ban (academic, really, since he will never get a licence). In those days we didn't have the power to seize the car, but we certainly would today. We felt a bit frustrated that the charges didn't allow us to ratchet up the sentence on this menace and we were reduced to hoping that his liver would do for him before he killed someone.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

White Horror Strikes - Blizzard Chaos

I have had to stay at home today, as the overnight snow has made it impossible to get to court and the sitting has been cancelled. This is the second time ever that weather has kept me away from court, the first being about three weeks ago.
How has everyone else got on? City courts with judiciary and staff living nearby should be okay, but the shires are presumably having a hard time of it.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

More Housekeeping

The Echo comments seem to be working, although a bit more fettling will be needed. The rushed and clumsy change from Haloscan has put a lot of people's backs up but we shall see how things settle down. I have had (and deleted) a few spam comments. I don't want to switch on verification unless I am forced to, but it does mean that if I am offline for a bit there may be some garbage in the comments until I can get round to dealing with it. Thanks for being patient.


Now and again we see a barrister who is at the top of his trade. Such do not come cheap, so they are usually instructed to act for Government departments or large companies. Less often they act for wealthy individuals.
Last year we were dealing with yet another Proceeds of Crime Act forfeiture hearing, when counsel for the people whose cash had been seized handed up photocopies of a few pages from the standard book on this fast-developing area of law. She handed up the sheets with the observation that they were copied from a book with which counsel for the Crown would be familiar. So they should be, as he is the book's author, a fact he acknowledged with a muttered: "A most excellent book sir: I commend it to you. It is available from good bookshops."

Monday, January 04, 2010


We recently dealt with a handful of Fishing Without a Licence cases. I don't understand why they have to come to court rather than being dealt with by fixed penalty, when offences of violence and theft are deemed suitable for out-of-court disposals.
The Environment Agency prosecutor helpfully handed up a list of the various licence fees to help us in assessing fines, and I was amused, as ever, to see the distinction between coarse fish and eels (£26) and salmon and sea trout (£70). The Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal has its pleasant stretches, but the salmon fishing is rubbish, so I wouldn't suggest you waste money on a licence to catch them. There are nice ones on offer in Tescos anyway.

Five Years On

Almost exactly five years ago I wrote about Jason who had enlivened one of my sittings by escaping a minute after I had told him that he was going inside.
He was on the court list again today, but not in my courtroom. Five years on he is still at it, still on drugs, and his latest escapade involves the alleged theft of an I-Pod (an electronic music device, m'lud). He's thirty next month. It's hard to see a future for him.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Helpful Suggestion

I have always been a helpful sort of chap - at junior school I rose to the heights of being appointed Register Monitor by being willing to help the teachers where I could, and I am only mildly disappointed that in the ensuing fifty years I have managed to rise only a little higher in life.
But here goes, with a truly helpful suggestion for those awfully nice chaps in the Government (in particular the Home Office bit of it) who have already taken away a lot of useful money from the justice system and who are likely to take a lot more, to the extent that even biscuits (!) are under the ever-present threat of being withdrawn; real milk to go in the tea has already gone (by the way, how absurd is it to stop the court buying milk from the nearby Tesco and replace it with dinky and infuriating plastic packs of UHT stuff that have to be imported from Eire?).
Anyway, it's these adverts that are getting to me a bit. Today's Sunday Times has a half-page in full colour telling me 'useful' stuff such as the fact that shutting windows when you go out makes it harder for burglars to get in. There is a load more here and there are ads on the radio to the same effect. I came back from my daughter's house via the M4 at Christmas and the matrix signs said, in foot-high letters, "Don't Drive Tired" as if that would make the tiniest difference to a single soul. A similar effort applied to making the signs give meaningful and up to date traffic information would be a better use of resources.
My serious point is that these patronising and useless bits of 'advice' to the public cost a lot of money. Those ads were designed, commissioned, created, booked and paid for by well-remunerated people with money that is going to be desperately needed elsewhere, very very soon. It's called priorities, chaps: get yours sorted out.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Fingers In The Till

There is some predictable harrumphing going on about the extension of the so-called Victim Surcharge to fixed penalties. The Mail's piece falls for the untrue assumption that the surcharge goes to help victims - it does nothing of the sort. This Parliamentary answer makes it clear that not a penny goes to victims themselves, but the money is allocated to services that would otherwise have been funded out of taxation in the usual way (including a good chunk to the CPS).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): The Victims Surcharge raised £3.8 million in 2007-08, the year of introduction, and £8 million in 2008-09.
All of the money raised from the surcharge contributed to direct non-financial support for victims and witnesses of crime. Funding was committed as follows:
£3 million/£2.6 million/£2.6 million to fund Independent Domestic Violence Adviser Services.
£3 million/£2.6 million/£2.6 million to the Crown Prosecution Service as a contribution to the cost of providing Witness Care Units under the No Witness No Justice initiative.
£5.6 million/£7 million/£6.2 million to the Victim Support National Centre to fund enhanced services to victims and witnesses under the Victim Support Plus initiative.
Additionally, £1.75 million was allocated to the Victims Fund each year, which has contributed to the funding of the organisations shown in the table below.
Money raised from the surcharge has not been used to refurbish witness waiting areas in magistrates' courts nor has it been used to pay witness expenses, and there are no present plans for it to be used in this way.
There are currently no plans to pay compensation to victims of crime from surcharge funds. The explanatory memorandum accompanying the enabling legislation for the victims surcharge makes it clear that surcharge money should be used to fund services helping victims of crime and witnesses.

It's a stealth tax, it's unfair, and it's intellectually dishonest.